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In East Timor, teetering on the edge of more bloodshed

The Washington Post - March 2, 1997

Matthew Jardine – "Hello, Mister. Where are you from?"

I had just arrived at the tiny airport in Dili, capital of Indonesian-occupied East Timor. The man, clad in civilian clothes, didn't identify himself except to say he was from Java, Indonesia's principal island. His questions – and the respect he seemed to command from uniformed officials at the airport – led me to believe he was an intelligence agent. As the only obviously non-Indonesian or East Timorese on this daily flight from Bali a few months ago, I attracted his attention.

"Are you a journalist?" the man asked, examining my passport. "Where are you planning to stay?"

I mentioned a local hotel and told him I was a tourist, a common lie that journalists tell to avoid immediate expulsion from places such as East Timor. I wasn't surprised by the scrutiny: During my first trip to East Timor in 1992, I was frequently followed and questioned as I traveled around the tropical, mountainous territory, which makes up half of an uncommonly beautiful island at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, 400 miles north of Australia.

But the beauty belies a harsh reality. In the more than 21 years since Indonesia invaded East Timor and annexed it, more than 200,000 people – about one-third of the country's pre-invasion population – have died as a result of the invasion, Indonesia's subsequent campaign of repression, the ensuing famine and East Timorese resistance to the ongoing occupation, according to Amnesty International.

East Timor was a backwater of the Portuguese colonial empire until April 1974, when the military dictatorship in Lisbon was overthrown. Two pro-independence political parties sprung up in East Timor; this development scared the Indonesian military, which feared that an independent East Timor could incite secessionist movements elsewhere in the ethnically diverse archipelago or serve as a platform for leftist subversion.

Indonesian intelligence agents began covertly interfering in East Timor's decolonization, helping to provoke a brief civil war between the two pro-independence parties. Amid the chaos, Portugal abandoned its rule of the island. Soon after, Indonesian troops attacked from West Timor (Indonesia has governed the island's western half since its own independence in 1949), culminating in a full-scale invasion on Dec. 7, 1975. They met with fierce resistance from Falintil, the East Timorese guerrilla army. But the war turned in Indonesia's favor with the procurement of counterinsurgency aircraft from the Carter administration.

The Indonesian military was able to bomb and napalm the population into submission, almost destroying the resistance as well. An Australian parliamentary report later called it "indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history."

Until 1989, East Timor was virtually closed to the outside world. Then the Indonesian government "opened" the territory to tourism and foreign investment, but continued to restrict visits by international human rights monitors and journalists.

As my taxi left the airport, I saw immediate evidence of change since my 1992 visit: On a wall near the airport entrance, someone had boldly spray-painted "Viva Bishop Belo," a tribute to Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the head of East Timor's Catholic Church. Belo and Jose Ramos Hortawere awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for their opposition to Indonesian oppression.

During my 1992 visit, most East Timorese seemed too afraid to make direct eye contact with me. This time, many people greeted me as I walked the streets in Dili, a picturesque city of 150,000. Some, particularly younger people, flashed a "V" sign for victory, a display of their nationalist sympathies.

East Timorese with the means to own a parabolic antenna can now watch Portuguese state television (RTP) – which beams its signal into the territory over Indonesia's objections – and catch glimpses of pro-independence leaders in exile or those hiding in the mountains. During my visit, RTP broadcast a documentary on Falintil, which now numbers around 600 guerrillas. The documentary, clandestinely made by a British filmmaker, contained footage of David Alex, a 21-year veteran in the struggle against the Indonesian military and third in the Falintil command. He is well known to the East Timorese, but few had ever seen him or heard his voice until the broadcast.

Despite these openings, East Timor remains a place where few dare to speak their minds in public and even fewer dare to invite foreigners into their homes. "We are very happy that the world has recognized our suffering with the Nobel Prize," a middle-aged woman told me in a brief conversation on a shady street, "but we still live in a prison." Our talk ended abruptly when a stranger appeared.

The streets of Dili are empty by 9 p.m. According to several people I interviewed, Indonesian soldiers randomly attack people, especially youths, who are outside at night. Matters are worse in rural areas, where the Catholic Church has less of a presence. "Outside the towns, people are at the total mercy of the Indonesian military," one priest said.

Increasing international scrutiny has forced Indonesia to be more discreet in dealing with suspected pro-independence activists. But arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions are still common, human rights researchers say.

Such repression, however, has not stilled opposition to Indonesia's authority. Open protests have been a sporadic occurrence since November 1994, when 28 East Timorese students and workers occupied the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta during President Clinton's visit to Indonesia. Demonstrations and riots erupted in Dili and in other towns.

Protesters sometimes target Indonesian settlers and businesses, a manifestation of the deep resentment caused by the large scale migration of Indonesians into the territory. There are upwards of 150,000 Indonesian migrants in East Timor (out of a population of 800,000 to 900,000), according to researchers. This influx, combined with administrative corruption and the destruction caused by the war, has overwhelmed the indigenous population. Joblessness and underemployment, especially among the young East Timorese, are high.

Indonesia maintains order through a highly visible military force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops and an extensive administrative apparatus. But a sophisticated underground resistance in the towns and villages challenges its authority. The underground has strong links to Falintil guerrillas in the mountains and to the resistance's diplomatic front abroad, led by Ramos Horta.

I saw this firsthand when I spent 24 hours during my trip with David Alex and 10 of the 150 Falintil guerrillas under his command. Underground activists drove me to a rural safe house, where I was taken on a lengthy hike to the guerrillas' mountain camp. My transport in and out of the region relied on the cooperation of numerous people from many walks of life, exposing the hollowness of Indonesia's claims that the resistance is marginalized and isolated within East Timor.

Many East Timorese told me that only the United States, Indonesia's longtime military and economic patron, has the clout to pressure the Jakarta government into resolving the conflict. Successive U.S. administrations have provided Indonesia with billions in aid since the 1975 invasion, despite United Nations resolutions calling upon Indonesia to withdraw and allow the East Timorese to determine their own future.

Bill Clinton, who called U.S. policy toward East Timor "unconscionable" before he became president, seems just as beholden as his predecessors to the lure of Indonesia, which Richard Nixon once called "by far the greatest prize" in Southeast Asia. The Clinton administration has provided Indonesia with almost $400 million in economic aid, has sold or licensed the sale of $270 million in weaponry.

Meanwhile, East Timor teeters on the edge of increased violence. On Dec. 24, 100,000 people gathered in Dili to welcome Bishop Belo back from receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo. Youths in the crowd, apparently fueled by rumors of an Indonesian military plot to assassinate Belo, attacked two men who they suspected of being in the Indonesian military and killed another carrying a pistol and a walkie-talkie. (Belo had announced a month before that the military had twice made attempts on his life.)

In the past three weeks, rioting has broken out in two different regions of the territory. Indonesian troops have responded with a major crackdown and numerous arrests. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), after a recent three-day visit to East Timor, described the atmosphere as one of "terror" and "total and complete fear."

Some East Timorese I met on my recent visit expressed fears that the violence and repression will intensify. "The people here are desperate," one priest said. "If the situation does not change soon, there will be much more bloodshed."

Matthew Jardine is co-author of "East Timor's Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance" (South End Press).

The prize

Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo (Timor): Lives in East Timor; at age 51, the Roman Catholic bishop serves as spiritual leader of most of the 750,000 people of East Timor. Although he has consistently criticized the Indonesian military, the Jakarta government often had to rely on Belo to help negotiate riots in the East Timorese capital of Dili.

Nobel Citation (1996): "At the risk of his own life, he has tried to protect his people from infringement by those in power. In his efforts to create a just settlement based on his people's right to self-determination, he has been a constant spokesman for nonviolence and dialogue with the Indonesian authorities."

Jose Ramos-Horta (Timor): Lives in exile in Australia; at age 49, he spends much time traveling to promote independence for East Timor. He worked for that cause of independence before Portugal left the colony in 1975, and was first exiled to Mozambique by the Portuguese government in 1970 for two years. He left East Timor three days before the 1975 Indonesian invasion. He is a member of the law faculty of the University of New South Wales.

Nobel Citation: "[He has been] been the leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since 1975, who has made a significant contribution" by striving for reconciliation talks and peace plan for the area.